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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tips for Au Pairs

Despite the fact that it has something like 9 or 10 months since I last updated here and I feel somewhat removed from this blog, I'd rather spit out the last few posts or so this place deserves even if no one is still reading. Regardless of how long it has been since I was in Holland. This post I've been sitting on the longest and I'm really glad to finally finish it up.

I've kept this down to five tips because everyone is different. Every family is different. Every au pair experience is different. I didn't want to get too specific with the dos and don'ts, but I did want to at least provide specific or thorough exposition for each point.

Tips that did not make this list but I'd like to share as friendly recommendations: make friends that are not from your home country, take a class or join a gym to give yourself some structure of your own outside of the structure of the family and your responsibilities to them, travel often on day trips or weekends, keep a journal even if it seems silly to record things you did during the day or temporary thoughts you had, and this might be too much of an opinion and definitely depends on the person/scenario but do not prevent yourself from becoming romantically involved or become very close friends with someone in your host country even if it not a serious relationship. Overall, don't cheat yourself out of experiences with the reasoning that it doesn't matter because you're just there for x months. If anything that should be reason enough for you to embrace everything that comes your way because when will you ever have the chance to do something or be with someone in the way you only can that very moment? Let's take it from over-used Einstein for this one, shall we?

(1) Do not become an au pair without a contract between you and the host parents.
I think my experience is enough to back up this point. You absolutely need a contract with your host family. It may sound absurd because as you grow to like them in your correspondences you'll probably feel like skipping that business-like step and prefer to deal with them on more familial terms. I definitely recognize the value of becoming a part of a family. That is what I sought from the very beginning of my search. However, I think a contract is still necessary. Circumstances can change. A contract not only protects you but it protects the host family as well. It is beneficial for both parties. The contract should outline the maximum number of ours you will be "on duty" each week. The stipend you will receive monthly or weekly. The number of vacation days you will receive and the stipulations about requesting dates off or taking a sick-day. It should also indicate the chores for which you will be responsible aside from general child care: laundry, cooking, vacuuming, ironing, etc. Other rules such as curfew and having friends over should be discussed and agreed upon even if they might not end up in the contract. Foremost, however should be a start and end date. When I flew over to Holland we did not have a set date of when my time would be up. We said we'd see how it felt after x amount of weeks or days. I think initially we said three months or six months. So when it came time for the six months to be up the simple task of agreeing on the date of my exit was exhausting and it ended up being the date that they wanted, not me. I had to let that go and I think Anna was still upset that she had to take time off work before the holiday to "cover" for me.

(2) Before you make any travel plans, make sure you have all the documentation you will need aside from your passport. This includes the proper visa, residence permit, or whatever your host country requires by law for you to have in order to live/work as au pair.
I know au pairs who did not have anything other than their passport but were never "caught" for not having the proper visa/permit. I know it happens but for the sake of your safety and the quality of your experience, I would consider this "visa free, hassle free" scenario a complete fluke. I was very lucky not to have to pay a hefty fine or even spend a night in jail (I know someone who did) before being exiled from the country. Please take this not as a strong warning but as a priority.

(3) Make lists.
This is not on this list just because I'm a list-making person. It will only benefit you from the moment you decide you want to become an au pair if you make at least one list. Before you even begin contacting families, I highly recommend making a list of the top three countries you'd like to live in and write very clear reasons why. Don't be vague. Then make a list of 5-10 qualities you'd like in a host family. The number of children you're comfortable caring for and the age range is a good place to start. This list will be especially helpful when you start conversing with potential host parents. They require specific qualifications from the person they'll take in as their au pair and so should you when you accept an offer from a family. Also, these lists will be the guides from which you can make a list of questions you will ask in your correspondences. I am not saying that you must find a family that absolutely fits all the criteria on your list but it will certainly help you filter potential families while staying on track for what you want and feel is right.

(3) Contact a potential host family's previous au pair(s).
My host family's previous au pair emailed me once or twice before her time with them was finished (she wanted to return to the US to begin graduate school) but I should have paid more attention to the fact that once I was there and tried to contact her about how she met people, what she did on her days off, and so on, she never replied. On the flip side, when Robin and Anna starting looking for my replacement I skyped with one of the candidates and was faced with the difficult scenario as she asked me questions. Do I tell her the facts or give her more information about how uncomfortable I had become? I don't know that I ever would have gone so far as to outright recommend to her that she not become their next au pair, but I struggled with the pros and cons of being honest and that was incredibly difficult for me. I always thought honesty is the best policy and sometimes that was one of character flaws but what was I willing to do for myself and for someone who could possible be put in the exact same position as me? I didn't want anyone to be put in my situation but at the same time I wanted Robin and Anna to find a replacement so I could leave. An au pair should never have to make that kind of decision. I was never contacted by whomever became the next au pair after me. She didn't ask for my email and I have no idea what her experience is/was like for that.

(4) Require pictures.
This seems like kind of a no brainer but it is on this list for good reason. If you're using an au pair matching website to find a host family, all the profiles will have a few pictures. But when you start corresponding with a family ask for more pictures. A lot of pictures. Ask for pictures of the whole family, of the children, and of the house. Robin and Anna sent me great pictures of all the main rooms of the house and the back patio where the children frequently play. All of the pictures were 100% accurate to reality. However, I did not ask for and they did not send any pictures of the room that I would be staying in. Their previous au pair told me something along the lines of it being very spacious (she cited that fact that she was able to do yoga in it and that was important for me) and private so I trusted her. She was right. It was spacious but it was also on the side of the house with one small window angled at such a way that it really only got sunlight for an hour or so each day (and none during the winter.) It also was not connected to the rest of the house's central heating. There was a furnace heater beneath the window that I was forbidden from turning past heat setting 1 1/2 because it was expensive. So my room was freezing. I am not exagerating. I wore gloves and sweaters layered over a sweatshirt when I was in my room. And I'd dress in the morning under the down comforter. It was spacious but there were a lot of random things stored in there like a folded up treadmill and an old vacuum. It did not feel like a bedroom. It was a storage room with a bed in it. I remember the first time I visited my friend Annina's host family's apartment and saw her room I was jealous. It was a tiny room but I would rather sacrifice space for ambiance. It was decorated, clean, and clearly designated at their au pair's room.

(4) Be yourself.
Am I pointing out the obvious? "Be yourself" is a phrase that seems to have become trite or even ironically forced. But it really is one of the best tips I think I can give you because think of it this way: if you're seeking the au pair experience then you are seeking a new and challenging experience. You should be aware that your personality and your values will be challenged. Whether that is a positive or negative experience is entirely up to you. You're immersing yourself in a different culture, possibly a different language, and within that culture you're transplanted into a family that is going to have it's own values, dynamics, quirks, and way-of-life. Stereotypes are rampant in these type of scenarios. Do not stereotype your host family and do not let them stereotype you. From the very first email or phone call it is very important that you be yourself. As you get to know the family, let them get to know you. They will have flaws that you will have to learn to accept and you must allow them to understand yours as well. If this becomes an issue then compromising will be the best tool even if it is tough. (Most of the time no one wants to compromise their beliefs or anything personal.)

More than halfway through my time in Holland, Robin made a comment that he prefers American au pairs because they always say what is on their mind. I'm well aware of the loud-mouthed stereotype Americans have and I'm well aware of how I do not fit that in the least. When he made that comment to me I wasn't sure if he knew that I was not like that - that I did not always say what was on my mind - or if he was saying that because he knew I wasn't saying something that was on my mind. I'm more reserved than the American stereotype might cast me. (Not necessary shy, mind you, but reserved.) I'm certain there are merits Robin and Anna recognize in American au pairs and I appreciate that they know what works for their family, but I was not certain that they could get past that to recognize the merits of an individual. When I visited Sweden part of the reason I felt so at home was because my personality fit so well with the culture there. (And I'm not just talking about fika.) I was surprised because I thought the only way certain aspects of myself would be revealed was if I was taken completely out of my comfort zone.

Despite seeming to buy into the American stereotype, Robin did recognize something about me I was not entirely aware of. One morning when we were taking Roeland to school, I stopped and waited for a van to back out of a driveway into the one-lane street and Robin told me that I was "too good for this village." That no one around there would have waited. He said something similar before that as well when we were at the playground with the children and Roeland asked me to go get his plush kicker  because he forgot it in the car. I went to get it and Robert told me that I am "too good for this world." I had been thinking about that a lot before those instances - how I felt I bent over backwards sometimes so I did not displease them. How I worried constantly that I might do something wrong. Most weeks I would leave to join my friends in Amsterdam as soon as Robin got home from work on Fridays. Before he even made dinner. At first I felt bad to bail out at my first chance. From the impression that my potential replacement, an au pair from the UK, made when she visited one Sunday (she was texting on her phone all the time and didn't even try to play or talk to the children) I could tell she would not be as attentive or conscientious as I was and would hardly live up to the expectations that Robert and Andrea had. It probably worked against me that I was so eager to do everything right because that could be easily taken advantage of at a cost to my own happiness.

Ruben and his kicker, who has obviously seen better days.

(5) Do not take things personally. 
The fact that I'm including this on the the list is kind of a big deal. Even though this was probably one of the biggest lessons I learned from being an au pair, it was the hardest for me to accept. If you've read tips 1-4 hopefully this last one will make sense. I allowed myself to feel hurt and sometimes even personally slighted when things with my host family did not go the way I expected or even hoped. I took comments Anna or Robin said to me very personally. As a result, I think I became too wrapped up in that and missed out on small opportunities while I was there and shorted myself to an extent. I'm not one for having regrets. What is done is done and it is a waste of time to even think about what could have or should have been done, but moving forward I now know not to dwell on certain things or to take everything so personally. I know I was very hard on myself when I was there. I should have cut myself some slack for, say, the one time I left water around the bathroom sink and Anna pointed that out to me, complaining her pajamas got wet when she leaned over it. One time out of how many nights I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I'm human.

I've touted before about having choices but allow me to bring it up again: we also have choices about how someone else's actions or comments make us feel and how we react. One example that comes to mind was a day when Anna was home from work for some reason or another and she came with me when I went to pick the children up from school. We drove to Rosa's school to pick her up. In the shuffle of having Anna there somehow Rosa's beloved stuffed purple olifant was left behind. We did not realize this until we were home and Rosa went into hysterics. I think I had assumed Anna thought to grab it or make sure it was there because she had gathered Rosa's things at school. And I'm sure Anna assumed I would do it since it was routine for me to pick Rosa up from school anyways. Whatever Anna said to me in the heat of Rosa's tantrum, which she probably did not mean to come off harshly, hit me really hard and like the perfectionist I am I beat myself up over it. How could I have been so thoughtless? Later that night, while skyping with my mom about it, she told me that as much as I care for the children I've never been a mother before. I haven't had years of practice and certain habits are not as naturally ingrained in me yet after only a few months with the children. She recalled a time when she had made a similar lapse of thought with me when I was little, when she was a brand new mom. As attentive as I was, I just did not have the experience that a mother has at that point in her children's lives. Later on, though, it was still hard for me not to take it personally when Anna vented about how unreliable au pairs are when the girl they thought was going to be my replacement cancelled on them just as I was about to determine when I'd be going home. I took that personally. How can she say au pairs are unreliable!? I've been nothing but since the day I arrived. Not one sick day. Not one major catastrophe.

Rosa, her oliphant, and one of her many plush Hello Kitties.

As an au pair, you'll just have to let a lot of things roll off your back. You have to have thick skin but you still have to be very acute to how your host parents want things to be done and what not. And just don't be afraid to ask questions if you're unsure of something. I did not do that enough.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Crimble Tale

Dear readers,

It's been awhile. Let's just skip the excuses, though I will admit I've been putting this post off. It seems procrastination is a habit that has stuck with me even after college. I just knew how much energy and effort would have to go in to writing this post the right way. I'm still not satisfied with it but here it is.

The last time I blogged here it had been a year since I first arrived in Holland. Now, to this very day it has been a year since I left Holland for the US. Last year, these past two weeks were probably the most difficult of my entire stay there because I was torn between wanting to leave and wanting to stay for reasons that almost directly opposed each other.

My Christmas last year was very John Lennon.

If you have not yet read the previous post please do so before continuing to read this post. To make sure, I'm putting the rest of this behind a jump...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sometimes I can't believe it / I'm movin' past the feeling

It has been a year since I arrived in Holland. I finally feel like I am at a place where I can start being entirely honest about my experiences as an au pair. It is not that I have been lying this entire time but I have been selective in what I share and how I share it. Whenever I posted in the past I always edited it on the chance that my host parents would somehow discover my blog. But this is my story.

I was always pretty candid about one of my struggles (homesickness) but I never explained or even alluded to the main struggle. The root of the homesickness issue. What made life there so difficult that I wanted to leave by September. I was desperate but somehow I stayed and survived. Even though it has taken me all this time to not be resentful. Even though it taken me all this time to feel comfortable about talking about it at length with people other than close friends and family.

First, I'm no longer feeling reverse culture shock. Though, as you'll soon see, it was more of a reverse lifestyle shock than culture. Second, I encountered other au pair stories where the experience was less than positive for the au pair. I'm not alone! One of my favorite professors told me about his wife being an au pair in Sweden when she was about my age. Her experience was similar to my own on such basic levels that I figure what happened with her and what happened with me is more common than I ever thought. It was not until he shared that with me that I started to let go of the guilt I felt. I felt like I was the one who failed. I was embarrassed at how things turned out and avoided telling people the truth unless I knew they would understand. Seriously, I was crippled by guilt and insecurity for months after getting back from Holland. I felt guilty for every feeling I had in Holland and every feeling I had afterwards. I felt guilty because I felt like I had somehow let those around me down. That I had let myself down. Then I realized that life is always a two way street. In terms of experiences - any experience abroad (au pair or not) is what you make of it. But in the case of an au pair the equally responsible party is the host family.

By nature I am a positive person so you can imagine how it was an endless cycle of guilt when I was not being positive and felt like I had failed. I felt guilty for failing. I felt guilty for feeling guilty. I felt guilty for not being positive. And it would go on and on that way. Especially so since I firmly believe in choices and character and free love. As Dumbledore says, "It is our choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." I didn't make the choices I know now I should have made then. But I also don't believe in regret. It is a waste of time. I can't change the past. I only have control over the present moment. I have a choice in every present moment that can change everything. Just before I left for Holland I lived my life based on that principle and wonderful things were happening. I still believe in that philosophy so I'm going to start living in the moment again. Because lately I've spent too much time thinking either about the past or about the future.

To be more specific, this blog entry "Not a Cinderella Story: My Misadventures Au Pairing in Switzerland" is what pushed me to making a decision about sharing my full story. That is probably why I haven't been posting here anymore. I was avoiding it because deep down I knew I'd have to confess. It may have taken me this long to let go of all my resentment and feel grateful for the entire experience as a whole regardless of the negatives but I am grateful. And I'm ready. I still need to fall back in love with myself, which I think has already started happening in this beautiful Dixie summer. And part of the process is being honest. Being open.

That is what I have to say now and soon I'll tell the rest.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Earworms, Bluebirds & a Lion Man

I am on the back of a bike. The metal bars meant to hold a package, purse or bag of groceries, is painfully digging into my rear end. I'm in a delicate state of balance. The tips of my toes are on the short bar that runs horizontally to connect to the axel of the back wheel. One slip and my toes will jam into the spokes. Even though I can't see what direction we're heading I anticipate the turns and stops by memory. In about half a minute we'll reach the end of the bridge and have to stop. The light at the intersection is rarely green whenever we pass through. I know we look completely absurd and when I'm not terrified about falling off, getting my toes stuck in the wheel, or loosing my balance, I'm giggling uncontrollably. Because I'm also balancing between two states of hysteria. I have a song stuck in my head and Annina explains to me, over her shoulder and she pedals us forward, the expression Germans use for such occurrences: earworm.

Taken August 2010, my adventure in Brussels. I took pictures of this couple being cute together on their bikes before walking past them later being street musicians near Manneken Pis. See that little rack on which the pack of water bottles sit? That is where I would perch when riding on Annina's bike.

That was last year. Sometime in the fall. In Amsterdam. With my dearest au pair friend. Only recently has a certain nostalgia for aspects of my life in the Netherlands begun to make an appearance. It usually materializes in my thoughts when I'm not really thinking. When I feel mindless. Going through the motions of something I could probably do with my eyes shut if I could. (But I wouldn't because most of those occasions are when I'm driving home from somewhere.)

My list-making self should probably start making a list of the things I realize I miss. But I probably won't and instead I have a trick that works much better than that. I save playlists. If I don't blog about something, take a picture, or make allusions in my journal, there isn't really a place for certain moments, experiences, or emotions to exist except in my memory. And memories fade, change, and sometimes disappear all together. I still remember learning about an earworm and in that memory lies the exposition of this post.

I make and save playlists for nearly everything. I have a playlist from when I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the first time. One song per chapter. If I run out of ideas for titles I'll just date it. So, the one titled "4-20" really refers to the fact that I happened to compile it on the 20th day of April and, despite what you might think, has no other association to the number arrangement. I have a playlist of songs I like listening to from back in the day when I was obsessed with playing The Sims. I have one that would be the soundtrack if I was a character in Skins. But mostly it goes by seasons, or months, and years. Here is collection of songs from the playlists I created in Holland. These are not all the songs that hold memories or were frequently blaring from my Macbook speakers or iPod headphones. These are just the ones that when I listen to now still have a overpowering orange flavor. Or an orange after taste. Or an orange spice, if even for just an instant. Orange for Holland, of course.

"Black River" by Amos Lee
When I visited Västerås I made it a point not to listen to music while I was there. (The train ride to/from Stockholm being the exception) so that the memories would seep into me and my soul in a different (and hopefully deeper) way. But when the week was over I found songs that somehow corresponded to my trips. The river that runs through Västerås, which I walked by a few times on Kulturnatt and after yoga in the castle, is called the Black River.

"Where Do My Bluebirds Fly" by The Tallest Man on Earth
The Tallest Man on Earth, aka: Kristian Matsson, is from Dalarna, Sweden. (Which is where the branches from my mother's side of the family and my father's side of the family originated at some point.) I downloaded all of his albums and EPs literally as soon as I got back to Holland from Sweden. And I listened to him every chance I got for something like two weeks straight. I don't want to say I was obsessed because that makes it seem like I'm crazy but maybe I am. I'm still pretty crazy about him. Have you ever discovered a musician and just felt so deeply connected to them and what they were singing that it was like you've known them and been listening to them your entire life? Yeah, that is how I feel about him in a nutshell. Like we were meant to be. Him, my headphones, and my heart. I listened to this particular song on repeat for hours one night while journaling about the transformation I felt happening in my soul.

"Cocaine Lights" by Phosphorescent
I listened to this song as the train back to Purmerend pulled away from Centraal Station at 12:09am on October 17th. The first two stanzas seemed perfectly timed for how I felt then. I was thinking of how much I missed BFF Brandy. The line "to be less of meat and stone / And more of feather" especially because I will never forget the time she asked me when we were probably only 14 what it would be like if we had feathers instead of skin. And Pablo Neruda's (a poet we both fell in love with on the same day in a book store in Kansas when we were again probably about 14) "Love, We're Going Home Now" is one of our favorites because we often feel like two blind birds about two blind birds searching for our homes. That October night one of the fellow au pairs I had become friends with was going home to Spain and I realized then that I would eventually being saying good bye to all the girls I spent every weekend with and almost every day Facebooking. Somehow, that night was when it finally set-in that the places in my life were not the only factors that shaped me but the people as well. It made me realize that there are so many people who you encounter and befriend. They mean something to you at some point in your life. And then life goes on. People are constantly passing through our lives. Annina walked me to the train station that night, all the way up to my platform, because that is what we do. We always walked each other to our departure points. Leaving goodbye-until-next-time for the very last moment. That was also the night I rode my bike back to the village in the dark for the first time and the cocaine lights kept me warm.

"Little Lion Man" by Mumford and Sons
I had downloaded a free Tap Tap Revenge app on my iPod and played it to pass the time away while waiting for the train. This was the only free song on there that I liked. I think I played it at least 100 times and got all the way up to the most difficult level. I can't listen to this song now and not twitch my fingers to the guitar chords.

"Big Bird in a Small Cage" by Patrick Watson
This goes a long with the bird stuff in the explanation of "Cocaine Lights." I also feel like it belongs in the soundtrack to my entire life, not just my life in Holland. The meaning is fairly easy to grasp.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

In which this tale's heroine fails miserably at being the heroine

My neglect of this blog is embarrassing and really has no excuse. I don't think even the most sincere apology will be sufficient. For the past few days I haven't had access to wifi at home so I'm scrounging some off at Panera. My dearest reader, there is so much I need and want to tell you but I just don't have the time right now. Until I get my wifi fixed here is a little follow up.

Remember those messy but delicious sprinkles that are a staple of the Dutch lunch? I bought a box from World Market. I have a love-hate relationship with this particular delicacy. For all the times I had to spend sweeping them from the kitchen in Holland and wiping down the children vigorously only to find them scattered about regardless, I still caved in a bought some because I suppose, in a way, I have missed them. The sprinkles that is. The children I'll address in another post.

Remember Paul, my family's foreign exchange student last summer? He stayed in my room while I was in Holland and when I got back, aside from leaving some shopping bags hidden in a corner, he also forgot some French newspapers on the floor by my bed. I've kept them.

Remember the gifts from abroad I was excited about giving people? They've all been distributed and I think everyone liked them.

Anne Frank
Remember when I visited the secret hideaway in Amsterdam with my friend Caitlyn? And how much admiration I have for Anne? I'm volunteering now at the Georgia Commissions for the Holocaust's Anne Frank Around the World Exhibit. It makes me very happy to be able to hang out with Anne a few hours every week.

Remember that one time I used getting back into yoga as a metaphor for adjusting after time abroad? Well, I still haven't mastered the headstand yet. I'm closer every practice. But I just wanted to fix a little case of mistaken identity. The instructor who I referred to as Glenn in that post is actually Jason. Glenn teaches on Thursday evenings and he is very different from Jason.

Remember that one time I stayed with my wonderful relatives in Sweden? Well, I still carry that with me every day and it is a part of who I am. There is a wonderful blog, The Modern Viking Vixen: A Foreigner's Guide to American Survival, written by a Norwegian living in L.A. She is by far one of my favorite bloggers. And if you're reading this blog then you should be reading hers. I'm still flattered and honored to have been featured in one of her Motivational Monday posts. Check it out!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

An Informal Treatise on Apperception and Assimilation - Part II

There is a commercial circulating the TV networks right now that makes me cringe. It is an advertisement for birth control and it implies that having children means you have less choices in life. Or not have a life of your own at all. But that isn't the point I want to make. Put it on mute. The women are walking through a store hand-picking the most major decisions most young adults face. They just reach out, pluck a house, significant other, graduate school diploma,and what not off the shelf and put it in their basket. As if it were all really that easy. I used to cringe whenever it came on but now I've graduated into some entry-level curses instead. I can't be the only person that is bothered by it but I think the fact that I now completely despise it holds a strong link to my re-entry experience.

I've provided an overview of my previous drama with re-entry and shared my first "ah-ha" moment this time around. Now, let's to get down to it. Here are the main components of reverse culture shock:

Feeling alienated. Any experience abroad, any encounter with the world no matter if it is just a glimpse, has an effect on a person's psyche. What one experiences abroad can never be fully relayed to others beyond the surface level. The returner can tell stories and the audience will listen politely, but no matter how genuinely interested they are there will be some sort of barrier. An invisible line separating the returner's experiences from their audience's understanding. It is no one's fault that this happens and of course sometimes it doesn't really matter. But it can also cause some angst. The returner can become easily wrapped up in thinking that no one understands. It is a little bit like being a teenager again. However, on the other side of the coin, this is why I will always have a special relationship with the people I met/befriended abroad. There is an unspoken understanding and connection between us that grew from our encounters and experiences abroad. I think it is human nature to want to connect with people and in terms of re-entry there is only a certain level of connection that can be achieved no matter the medium: picture slideshows, lectures, first-hand accounts, ect.

Frustration. The inability to relate to others upon return can lead to frustration. It can manifest itself in such a way that the returner might not realize it's true cause. It can take any length of time for the realization to occur or it could, in my case, only take a challenging yoga session. Just as I became frustrated at times because I couldn't understand the Dutch culture in certain instances, I now become similarly flustered and confused about things I am re-encountering in my home country. I question myself, second guess myself, and try to understand everything, which could really just be a personality trait but it certainly becomes a heightened issue during my period of adjustment.

Indecisiveness. This is another side effect of the frustration and/or the alienation. If you're confused then making decisions can be very difficult. For me, even the simple choice of which pair of shoes to wear can become overwhelming. If you lack definition then nothing really feels right. So far, what has really helped me in this area has been my close friends and family members. They force me to refocus. Brandy in particular because she knows me so well that in some strange way she has the ability to shift me into the right perspective on life. For others undergoing reverse culture shock I think it is important, despite the alienation that displaces them from those around them, to force oneself to spend time with significant people: a parent or spouse or sibling or best friend or mentor. People change and relationships change so those who have been through thick and thin with you or those who possess life-wisdom provide the ideal context for reorientation. They'll accept the returner and be open to what he/she is going through while providing support at the same time.

“It is paradoxical but true that something that takes you out of yourself also restores you to yourself with a greater freedom.”
Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life by Frances Mayes

Additional side effects include: withdrawal, a feeling of rootlessness, negativity, insecurity, and a need for excessive sleep. I had no idea that last one can be attributed to the re-entry experience until I did some reading online but in a way it makes perfect sense. I've been having multiple dreams a night nearly every night for almost a month now. I don't feel well-rested when I wake up even if I've gotten my full quota of sleeping hours. My subconscious is incredibly active, which is a good sign, but when I'm awake I'm still feeling that blankness. That neutral emptiness. It can only disappear with time so patience is one quality that returners need to foster within themselves during their period of adjustment.

Also while reading online, I've come across many suggestions on how to help make the transition easier. Get active in your community. Keep in contact with friends from abroad. Keep yourself busy with projects of varying importance. Some things might work better for certain people. I know what works for me. Journaling. Reading. Meditation. Jogging. I have myself on an easy-to-digest diet of all those things. The tricky part is determining how often and how hard to push myself. I think the returner should be aware of their resistance from the beginning. Embrace the "symptoms" at first so that they're not avoiding the heart of the matter later on.

Now can you see why I feel the way I do about that damn commercial? I know it is not a big deal. It is just a commercial. One minute. Just change the channel. Turn off the TV. I know, I know. The first time I saw it I wished that life really were like that but then I thought about it. The process of making a decision can have just as much (or more) of an effect on one's life than the actual outcome of the decision. Nothing in life is ever easy and that is for a good reason. The more you have to endure and experience, the more you learn. I did my research about becoming an au pair but nothing could have sufficiently prepared me for those six months. I went over there wanting to discover myself. There are probably easier, less costly, ways for me to have done that but it was a one-of-a-kind experience. As cheesy as it sounds, I'm a changed person. I wouldn't be if life was really like that commercial. Yes, it would be nice to just strap a trip to Paris to the roof of my car and be gone but it is the process, the experience, the getting-there that has weight as well. It takes time to build the life you want. It takes time to readjust. I'm still learning things about myself that I don't think I ever would have discovered in any other setting. I'll always have that wanderlust and that thirst for adventure but right now I need to settle into this new life. This new me.

Monday, January 24, 2011

An Informal Treatise on Apperception and Assimilation - Part I

On Wednesday, for the first time in my entire life, I almost walked out of a yoga class. There wasn't a flow and the instructor, Glenn, had a very odd idea of ambiance: Phil Collins and James Brown. I have nothing against Phil but I just don't find his compositions particularly conducive to yoga. And I suppose I can understand where Glenn was coming from with James because he is, after all, the King of Soul and yoga goes to those depths as well. However, it seemed too forced to have "I Feel Good" playing while we moved into our salutation series. Then, "Sex Machine" came on and the ridiculousness really got to me. My mental and physical spheres were completely disjointed. I had no sense of balance. I was in pain and that damn music was contributing to my frustration. So, I almost rolled up my mat and left. I wasn't the only one. A few people did just that but something made me stay. It got worse before it got better but I stuck it out. Yoga is not about giving up.

Just before our cool down we did a few challenges. The first was a full backbend. I hesitantly bent my knees, lined up my feet and palms, and took a few deep breaths. I was going to do it just to spite Glenn but I didn't think I would be able to hold it very long. I was stiff, tired, and annoyed but I pushed up anyways. It hurt like hell but my navel kept pulling towards the ceiling. Towards the sky. Glenn had changed the music to "The Ride of the Valkyries." What a cruel sense of humor but it actually matched perfectly as my hips, back, and shoulders rose up in an arch. Suddenly, I felt a surge of strength. So, instead of complaining to myself about how stupid the music is or how un-instructive and insensitive Glenn was being, I let myself go. I gave in to the pain and it disappeared. My overactive ego shut up and all I could feel were my hands and feet grounded into the floor. Blood rushing into my head. And that mysterious strength keeping my navel steady. When it was time (but with no idea how much time had passed), I came out of the pose and Glenn told us to move into a headstand if we were comfortable doing so. I knew for sure that I wasn't going to be able to do a full one but I set myself the goal of building up my strength and balance over the next few weeks so that I would be able to do one. I set myself a goal.

Image from the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall. If you don't mind profanity watch the full scene here otherwise enjoy the censored version above.

A few more stretches later, as we all relaxed into corpse pose, Glenn finally got something right when he put on Bob Marley. (Even though it made me feel a short pang of memory because Bob reminds me of my au pair friends back in Holland.) Before we were dismissed Glenn reminded us that the word of the day was "playful." I was a few minutes late to class so I missed that, which would have probably made me open up earlier on. I was taking everything too seriously when my only task was to be playful and light.

In the introduction post I outlined some of the aspects of reverse culture shock: alienation, frustration, negativity, restlessness, uncertainty, and so on. I'm going through all of that right now but unlike last time, when I came back from Italy, my realization moments are happening sooner rather than later. I realized during yoga class (instead of after) that I had been projecting all my frustration with myself onto Glenn. I couldn't balance or concentrate because I was being stubborn. In fact, I wasn't even trying. I was just expecting to blend back into yoga even though it had been months since I last did a full session. When Glenn told us to hop or step from forward fold into plank I stepped back every time. I know I can't just jump right back into life again after so many months away. It is okay that I'm not ready to do a handstand right now. I need to build myself up to it. I need to reconnect. I need to be patient. Besides, most of the time the only person holding me back is myself. I did my best back bend after I told myself to just let go. My life may seem upside down right now, but I have a goal and once I rise up into that headstand I think everything will start turning right side up again. With my feet in the air and head on the ground I might gain some clarity. It is reverse culture shock after all. Also, unlike last time when I came back from Italy, I'm not going to let myself be stubborn. I'm not going to be so hard on myself and those around me. I'm going to be a bit more playful.